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Two Blind Men and a Fool

by Sherman Smith

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Chapter 31: A Special Courage

part 2 of 2

Earl’s sobs brought Stella up short. Behind that closed door he sat alone in the dark, his pain carrying away the silence that had followed his impassioned refrain. Her eyes met Henry’s as she searched for permission to run to Earl and take him in her arms. To somehow absorb his pain, pain she couldn’t guess at or understand. If she had known the sacrifice she was asking, she wouldn’t have... Yes, she still would have, and there was the tragedy that tore at her heart.

“Is there anything I...?” Gibby started to ask.

“No, just give him some time,” Henry said to both.

A sudden gust of wind seemed to come out of nowhere, as if a storm had suddenly burst with no warning. Earl’s sobs grew quieter as the front door swung shut behind a retreating customer who wanted no part of the story unfolding inside.

The gray cigarette smoke swirled and seemed to settle in front of the storage room door. The brownish gray curtain parted as Earl opened the door and felt his way to the bar without a word. The breeze had blown nut shells into his path, and they crunched loudly with each step.

The scar tissue behind his dark glasses seemed redder and more prominent to Stella as she watched, her breath catching with the cannonade of each flattened shell. He didn’t say a word. When he got behind the bar he found a cloth, draped it over a forearm, and then cautiously began to feel some bottles.

“Earl, what are you doing?” Gibby broke the silence.

“Gibby, have you ever been annoyed and amused with yourself at the same time?” His voice seemed unreasonably calm under the circumstances. “It’s an interesting feeling. Your gut squeezes the breath from your lungs as you struggle to laugh and cry simultaneously.” Earl caught a bottle just as he was about to tip it over. He felt around until he found a shot glass, raised the bottle, then tried to pour a measured shot. The liquor spilled over before he could stop it.

He smiled slightly. “A blind man walks into a bar with his Seeing Eye dog. He lifts the dog up and swings him around over his head by the tail.

“The bartender says, ‘Hey, man! What are you doing?!’

“The blind man answers, ‘Oh, I’m just looking around’.”

No one laughed at a joke that might have been funny another time.

“Back before the war, I was a bartender at a country club in Tennessee. I used to be good at this.” He placed a finger just inside the shot glass. “I’m willing to bet I haven’t forgotten how.” He held a glass up as if he were inspecting it for spots. It may take me a while to get used to handling these, but I can still banter with the best, and that is half the trade.

“Have you heard this one? A string walks into a pub and orders a drink. ‘Sorry, we don’t serve strings,’ says the barman.

“‘What? That’s discrimination,’ says the string. The string walks into the bathroom and ties himself in a knot and messes up his end. He comes back out to the bar and again orders a drink.

“‘Aren’t you that string I just refused to serve?’ asks the barman.

“‘No. I’m a frayed knot’.”

Earl smiled, his jaw slightly working as if he were chewing on a word until it was just right. “Brooks, you’re right. You are an unbearable prick. I’ll say it to you straight: you are not a nice guy, and I’ve often wondered if you ever have been. Like it or not, Stella has dropped you off at our miserable little watering hole.”

“Say, wait a minute,” Gibby interrupted.

“No offense intended,” Earl countered. “I owe you more than you can ever understand, Gibby, but for now, do me a favor and shut up. I’m drowning here and don’t need any extra rocks. Now, as I was saying... Brooks, you’ve made your case, sad and true. The more one thinks about it, the more reasons we can come with to say no. Have you ever thought about something so hard you you can’t remember what the question was? Now I’m even confusing myself.”

He turned, took a few short steps forward to the bar where he thought Brooks might be, found the iced, weeping glass in Brooks’ hand and touched it. “One could almost believe that on the other end of that hand lay a person of some sort. A person who has bared his soul and asked for help. Gibby, of course, you have the final say. Me. I’ve decided, against my better judgment, to take the risk.” He paused with a slight catch in his voice. “Brooks?”

Brooks touched Earl’s hand with his own then withdrew it. “Does this mean we’re engaged?”

Earl snorted.

Stella put a finger to her lips to stifle a laugh and came up with a sob instead.

An ice cube sounded as loud as a calving glacier in Brooks’ glass in the brief silence.

Earl reached into his pocket and took out a small wooden metronome that Henry had purchased from the front window of a pawn shop and placed it on the bar in front of Brooks. At Earl’s release it began to tick, its swing sounding a perfect measured cadence.

“I want you to have this — on loan. You’re going to need it more than me. From now on, it’s your ass that’s going to polish the piano bench. You are going to play. Maybe you can improve, which I doubt. It’s up to Gibby how long you’re allowed to stay. Play, my friend, and play well. But for God’s sake, please don’t sing.”

Earl let loose of Brook’s hand, turned back to where he had over filled the shot glass and tried again. “We’ll earn our keep with the price of admission. Gibby, you should charge a premium for the entertainment: a blind bartender and a tone-deaf crooner. What a side show.”

His tone changed to that of a good friend giving sage advice to a drunken fool. “Brooks, you and I are both on a short lifeline. Adam’s Place is a swell place to be. Don’t screw this up. There are no second chances.”

“Stella, it will take a good twenty years or so to forgive you for this setup, but, hell, if all goes right, we’ll have the time to work it out.”

“Gibby, if it’s all right with you, we’ll just take it one day at a time.” He paused, sounding for a moment as if he wanted to take back his words, then repeated them. “One day at a time, if that’s all right with you?”

“Gibby? Please,” Stella said in a soft whisper with an edge of a prayer in her voice.

“Oh, brother,” Gibby said as he raised his hands in acknowledged defeat.

Earl dropped a glass of Scotch in the sink water.

“God help me, I’ll be bankrupt by week’s end.” Gibby frowned; the numbness in his arm reminded him that he had greater worries.

“Henry, help me out here. I think I need a bottle of water for this,” Earl said as he attempted to fill another shot glass. “I’m wasting too much good booze; take it out of my next paycheck. Oh, that’s right, I don’t have one.”

Henry caught Stella’s eye and smiled. The kind of smile that says, You got us into this, so you had best stick around.

Brooks wanted to cry but couldn’t. He dabbed at his mask with his sleeve, took the metronome gently in hand, careful not to disturb its cadence, and moved to the piano with Stella’s help.

“Stella,” Earl said, as he turned and smiled at where she had been. “I took a hot bubble bath while you were gone. It felt right fine. I didn’t get much done with my hair though.” He waved his hand through the hair on the side of his head. “It feels like I still have a regulation hospital perm. The world’s one and only blind barkeep ought to have a little more style, don’t you think? Henry offered to help. I liked your offer better.” He then sniffed his shirt sleeve. “Say, where are the clothes you promised?”

Stella’s laughter rang bells.

Brooks found the piano, sat and began to play, self-consciously at first, timid, until his pals Tedium and Boredom whispered in his ears. Then, he let loose. Brooks had a bright, reckless, alto voice that seemed to wander off, looking for notes in all the wrong directions, just as Earl had promised.

“Christ,” he heard Earl swear. Brooks stopped, then laughed at himself. “Earl, the next time I go astray, help me out here. I’ll play, you sing.” This time there was no conceit about him.

Earl hesitated. God knew he wanted to sing, as did Stella and Henry. He took a stiff drink of rye, thinking it was bourbon. His grimace said it all. “No,” he rasped, “Brooks, you go ahead. There is no one here who hasn’t heard you caterwaul before. The question is whether I can learn to pour a proper drink before you can learn to sing. Time will tell...” He hummed quietly to himself as he practiced his new trade.

Without being asked, the last customers left. Gibby nodded and smiled, knowing they would be back. He got up, walked over to Earl and watched with a father’s patient gaze. He placed the bottle of water Henry had filled in Earl’s right hand. “Easy does it. Measure with your little finger to the top of the nail. Oops! Try again.”

He looked over at Brooks who seemed to be struggling a little in finding the keys. Brooks’ full-head bandage still bothered Gibby; it would take some getting used to.

He turned back to Earl. “You didn’t just give Books a lousy piano bench did you?” The question private, between men.

Earl shrugged, bringing his shoulders almost to his ears and back down. “You’ve got a big heart, Gibby, so I’ll tell it to you straight.” His voice lowered for a private conversation. “If I could kick myself in the ass for doing this, I would kick hard. I very much regret it, but it’s done. Is it the right thing to do? I don’t know. What I do know is: if I could see Stella, I couldn’t stand the hurt in her eyes if I let her down.”

He filled a shot glass with whiskey, downed most, spilling the balance on his shirt. For a moment his whole body drew up into a tight knot of emotion held back, he had already cried once too often. He shook with it, holding the glass so tight Gibby grew afraid that it might shatter.

With a long audible hiss that rose from deep within, Earl released the glass onto the counter top. “I can do this,” he whispered to himself. “I will do this.”

“Gibby” — Earl’s voice sounded rusty from whiskey and strain — “my number came up twice during the war, and I cheated the Devil. It has been music that has given me a second life. I’m a jealous lover. I can’t stand to be near music; being a part of it, controlling it — it’s passion with me. Not to be in control would be like listening to the woman you love bed down with another man. The French have a term — let’s see, oh yes — ménage à trois.”

There was a profound sigh that seem to start down low, then rose until there was nowhere else to go. “Brooks and me,” he continued as the last of the sigh masked his words, “are going to have to learn to share her. That is, if she’ll have us both.” A single tear slid out from behind his dark glasses. He tipped the bottle up and took a sip of water, then he filled the glass again to overflowing.

Gibby, who had lost a wife and a son, thought he could understand Earl’s pain. Earl’s music was something to be felt, it was within his soul, his breath, and no one could feel the music as Earl did. He was just beginning to get a sense of that. Go ahead, son, take it back, this here fellow — Brooks, can find his place somewhere else. He wanted to say that, but it was too late, what was done was done.

Gibby placed a warm hand on Earl’s shoulder and said, “We’ll find a way to make it work, somehow. Right now I haven’t a clue where to begin. As for you giving up your music, I can’t see that happening. You said that music was your mistress. It might help, if you showed her where your heart is, that your voice is a more passionate lover than Brooks’ fingers can be.”

Earl thought about that, set the bottle down, turned and made his way to the piano where Brooks played. “Brooks,” he asked curiously, as he heard the last note echo and fade away, “did you ever see The Wizard of Oz? That’s right, you were an extra. A Munchkin. No, wrong size, right voice. Well, I’m about to take you on a little road trip. Give me an E-flat major and follow my lead.” Earl gently bumped Brooks from the piano bench, found the keyboard and began to play.

Earl sang colors to the blind man, with a startling passion. And in the end Brooks could see them: red, green, gold, all the hues in the rainbow. Music was Earl’s mistress, and he seduced her with no questions about his intent. Brooks had just been put on notice that he was lucky to be along for the ride.

Henry polished bar glasses, watched and listened. Earl’s was a rare talent, and music was a gift that had never really blossomed until he had had to confront the dragon he feared the most, alone in the unforgiving and terrifyingly personal dark.

Henry had not seen his mom and pop since 1942, when his people, the Nisei, had been imprisoned and he had joined the Army. He had planned on paying them a visit before he went off to medical school. Now that would have to wait. Things happened for a reason, and for the moment he was needed here.

“I believe this is yours,” Henry said, as he pushed the four hundred dollars across the counter to Stella. His eyes asked the unspoken question. Where did you get that kind of cash?

“It’s a long story,” she said with an evasive smile. She took the cash and became immediately uncomfortable with the thought that she had left the rest of the money in the car. “Gibby, you have a safe? Would you mind if I put something in it for a short while?”

“Why don’t you just prepay a bar tab, and we’ll call it even.” He thought she was referring to the four hundred dollars. He chuckled. “No problem.”

She went out to the car and returned with a rolled-up pillow case. Three hundred of the four hundred dollars she added to the case, rolled it tight, wrote her name on the outside, tied it off with some string, and handed it to Gibby.

“Good grief!” Gibby exclaimed. He couldn’t even guess at the amount. “How...? Where...?” He rolled his eyes as he took the pillow case, giving it a curious squeeze. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

The tightness in his chest came back, constricting his breath. He felt a little dizzy. No more surprises tonight. Please. “I’ll see you in the morning. Henry close up. Good night.”

He took the pillow case upstairs, put it in the safe, then lay on his bed without even taking off his shoes, and listened uneasily to the voices and music that leaked up from the bar below. What was done was done; somehow they’d make do.

What troubled him now was the tightness that pressed down on his chest, a haunting specter he didn’t want to face. It wasn’t that he was afraid to die; it happens to everyone. But now that he had been dragged kicking and screaming into taking in first Earl, now Brooks, he couldn’t just check out, somehow that just didn’t seem right. He closed his eyes and let sleep push that question into tomorrow.

Stella took a gin she hadn’t asked for from Henry and sat down at the piano, her eyes moist, a little blurry. It had been one hell of a day, both terrifying and glorious, one of the most topsy-turvy, confusing, and surprising days she could remember.

She laughed to herself as she began to realize that she was falling in love with these two blind men: one, a desperate alcoholic afraid to live; the other, a man so full of surprises he would keep her guessing until the end of her days.

The evening ran long, a wonderful blur of emotion; warm with a tinge of bitter.

Proceed to Chapter 32...

Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith

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